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 Interactive processes

Interactive processes are initialized and controlled through a terminal session. In other words, there has to be someone connected to the system to start these processes; they are not started automatically as part of the system functions. These processes can run in the foreground, occupying the terminal that started the program, and you can't start other applications as long as this process is running in the foreground. Alternatively, they can run in the background, so that the terminal in which you started the program can accept new commands while the program is running. Until now, we mainly focussed on programs running in the foreground - the length of time taken to run them was too short to notice - but viewing a file with the less command is a good example of a command occupying the terminal session. In this case, the activated program is waiting for you to do something. The program is still connected to the terminal from where it was started, and the terminal is only useful for entering commands this program can understand. Other commands will just result in errors or unresponsiveness of the system.

While a process runs in the background, however, the user is not prevented from doing other things in the terminal in which he started the program, while it is running.

The shell offers a feature called job control which allows easy handling of multiple processes. This mechanism switches processes between the foreground and the background. Using this system, programs can also be started in the background immediately.

Running a process in the background is only useful for programs that don't need user input (via the shell). Putting a job in the background is typically done when execution of a job is expected to take a long time. In order to free the issuing terminal after entering the command, a trailing ampersand is added. In the example, using graphical mode, we open an extra terminal window from the existing one:

billy:~> xterm &
[1] 26558

billy:~> jobs
[1]+  Running                 xterm &

The full job control features are explained in detail in the bash Info pages, so only the frequently used job control applications are listed here:

Table 4-1. Controlling processes

(part of) command Meaning
regular_command Runs this command in the foreground.
command & Run this command in the background (release the terminal)
jobs Show commands running in the background.
Ctrl+Z Suspend (stop, but not quit) a process running in the foreground (suspend).
Ctrl+C Interrupt (terminate and quit) a process running in the foreground.
%n Every process running in the background gets a number assigned to it. By using the % expression a job can be referred to using its number, for instance fg %2.
bg Reactivate a suspended program in the background.
fg Puts the job back in the foreground.
kill End a process (also see Shell Builtin Commands in the Info pages of bash)

More practical examples can be found in the exercises.

Most UNIX systems are likely to be able to run screen, which is useful when you actually want another shell to execute commands. Upon calling screen, a new session is created with an accompanying shell and/or commands as specified, which you can then put out of the way. In this new session you may do whatever it is you want to do. All programs and operations will run independent of the issuing shell. You can then detach this session, while the programs you started in it continue to run, even when you log out of the originating shell, and pick your screen up again any time you like.

This program originates from a time when virtual consoles were not invented yet, and everything needed to be done using one text terminal. To addicts, it still has meaning in Linux, even though we've had virtual consoles for almost ten years.

Introducing Linux
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